Carpenters union's downtown leafleting seems misdirected

Cleveland has always been an interesting labor town. There were the days before World War II when a very young Bill Presser rode down Euclid Avenue, heaving bricks through the windows of store owners who hadn't thought they needed the services of (or hadn't made payoffs to) the glass workers union. There was Alan Friedman, Presser's brother-in-law, back from serving as a paratrooper in World War II, tossing a bakery owner down the steps to teach him not to go against the teamsters. ("The son of a bitch had a heart attack when he landed," Alan complained when working with me on the book Power and Greed: Inside the Teamsters Empire of Corruption. He was seemingly upset by his victim's weakness because "He died three days later. Who would have known?") And there was the Irish teamsters leader who was introduced to a young lady of ill repute by Friedman, who didn't mention that the girl, though a willing professional, was under age. The man was busted, which would have horrified his devout Catholic wife and his sister who was a nun — but Friedman again stepped in, providing the services of Presser who paid enough people that the incident disappeared. The payback introduced Presser and his mob associates into the Cleveland Teamsters' leadership, paving the way for Jimmy Hoffa.

But nothing I have heard while occasionally covering union activities over the years prepared me for the recent "bannering" ("Don't call it picketing!") taking place downtown by the Carpenters Union in front of the Cadillac Ranch Restaurant at 200 Euclid Avenue and the Holiday Inn Express at East 6th and Euclid, a project of MRN Ltd., which is responsible for most of the new development around East 4th Street.

Being pro-union (membership in Authors Guild, Writers Guild of America and others over the years), I walked up to my brothers and sisters, and asked in solidarity, "Why are you picketing?" The answers were fairly consistent: "Because they're paying me to be here."

"But what's the complaint?"

Most said they did not know. One said, "That must be proprietary information or they would have told us."

Since I came from Tower City, I first asked the members passing out flyers in front of Cadillac Ranch why they were there after all work was done and the restaurant had opened. One man just smiled. "That's a good question. You'll have to take it up with the union."

So I called the union. After leaving several unreturned messages, I talked with Mark Kuzmik, director of organizing at Carpenters Local No. 21, who first made clear that no picketing was taking place. "We're bannering," he explained. Based on what I had seen almost daily on Euclid Avenue, this means two people holding an unfurled banner citing a general complaint. The other men and women are passing out flyers with information that tells the reader, well, nothing.

As I understand the playing field, the Carpenters Union is starting a national campaign to assure that businesses hire union carpenters and/or pay union rates and benefits. They are worried about undocumented workers being bused in by labor contractors who pick them up in designated spots, and Amish workers who are bused to job sites. And they are also worried about qualified and unqualified carpenters being hired at below-union rates. That is why there is an information campaign to alert the public to the need to demand that businesses only "use contractors that meet area standards on all the properties they own or manage!"

During informational picketing (as opposed to bannering), the rank and file holding the signs and passing out flyers are educated in the concerns so that they can tell the public. Stop and talk with them the next time you see a union picket line; their knowledge and passion will likely convert you to their cause, or at least generate some empathy for their concerns. But the Carpenters Union leadership apparently felt this step was unnecessary, at least in downtown Cleveland.

How many carpenter jobs exist on how many job sites connected with either Cadillac Ranch or MRN Ltd., and how many are not going to union members? I asked. No one knew.

"We're sending a message to the owner in case he builds anymore restaurants," one person suggested outside Cadillac Ranch.

"But this one is finished. Are there any others being built?"

"I don't know."

At MRN Ltd., the protest seems even more out of place. Rick Maron and his sons are small-scale redevelopers who have been taking run-down properties and turning them into lifestyle destinations. East 4th Street now boasts a comedy club, upscale and affordable restaurants, a coffee shop, House of Blues, a live theater and a stable base of 300 market-price apartments and condos, many of them just above the businesses. They have become a role model for developer responsibility, providing an unusual work model by keeping their skilled laborers on payroll on a year-round basis — not laying off between projects or in bad weather as others normally do.

Of course, the MRN laborers often handle more than one task — a carpenter who has learned electrical work will handle such a job when needed, for example. And the Carpenters Union rightfully says that a man or woman who works full time in a single building trade should be considered more trustworthy. To a point this is true, though the statement would have had greater impact if not for two facts. The first is that the man who told me this works full time for the union, yet he is a cabinetmaker, a skill unrelated to his union work. Yet no one would criticize his cabinet-making skills because of his union leadership, nor would they criticize his union work because of his craft skills.

The second is that all construction work is checked by trained inspectors. (Yes, there are dishonest building inspectors. There are dishonest contractors. And there are dishonest union leaders. But disreputable characters are in the minority in all these fields). If a skilled craftsman enjoys working in two or more of the building trades and can do adequate work that can pass inspection, this is no different than someone who enters medicine to become a general practitioner, family practice specialist or general surgeon. Some specialize. Some are generalists. If the work is competent and the compensation fair, where is the problem?

Alan Friedman once lectured corporate CEOs on how to avoid unions. He said that if they treated their employees fairly, no one would join a union. That is still true today.

The carpenters have legitimate concerns, and bannering, work stoppages and other tactics are certainly appropriate at times. But by starting their campaign with a project that's completed and a developer who provides the type of year-round employment most skilled craftsmen long for, the only thing it seems they're accomplishing is what workers truly appreciate in these tough times: With too few jobs requiring their carpentry skills, the union is helping to put food on their family's table by paying them to pass out flyers. The money is a blessing. Just don't ask why the flyers make little sense.

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